Page last updated at 23:18 GMT, Saturday, 27 December 2008

Migrant wave hits Italian island

An Italian police officer watches over migrants on Lampedusa - 26/12/2008
Migrants are charged about $1,000 to cross the Mediterranean

Several hundred more migrants from Africa have arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa, bringing the total of arrivals in 48 hours to about 1,700.

Two boats carrying more than 300 people were intercepted by the Italian navy off the island a day after four vessels holding about 1,300 people were found.

Italian officials say there has been a sharp rise in the number of illegal migrants coming from Africa this year.

Many risk the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to enter Europe from Libya.

People smugglers

The latest arrivals included two pregnant women who were among 65 people rescued from a large inflatable dinghy south of Lampedusa, Ansa news agency said.

Another boat was intercepted on Saturday carrying 247 people.

Four vessels made their way to Lampedusa or were intercepted close to the island on Thursday night and Friday morning.

Italian authorities say the island's migrant detention centre, built to house 850 people, is under severe pressure.

Map of Italy, including Lampedusa, and Libya

The interior ministry says more than 24,000 migrants arrived in Italy from January to September, compared to about 14,000 in the same period in 2007.

Many of the migrants are fleeing wars or poverty and leave Africa through Libya, says the BBC's Duncan Kennedy in Rome.

People smugglers charge them about $1,000 (686; 710 euros) each to make the often stormy crossing in barely-seaworthy vessels, says our correspondent.

Italy and Libya agreed earlier this year to step up naval patrols to try to reduce the flow of migrants.

Italy also offered to help Libya improve security on its southern desert frontier.

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